SAN DIMAS - Clyde Towles didn't believe he was musically inept.
When he started junior high school, Towles loved listening to Harry James' records. He convinced his mother to rent him a trumpet and pay for private lessons. Tenacious and determined, he refused to accept the private teacher's advice to turn in the trumpet and abandon any hope of mastering music because he couldn't blow it.
Instead of giving up, he practiced, practiced, practiced at home. He couldn't read music, so he watched the trumpeter beside him in the school band.
"When he held his valve down, I'd hold mine. I taught myself sharp, flat, whatever I needed in order to play that trumpet. By the time I left, I was first chair trumpet. They didn't know I couldn't read music yet," said Towles, founder/director of the Gem City JazzCats, a 17-piece swing band that will perform at the San Dimas H.E.R.O.E.S. Veterans Memorial benefit on July 13.
Tickets are on sale for the Plummer Community Center show starting with a 6 p.m. social hour and also featuring The Bornsteins and comedian Steve Mazan.
Towles gained the proficiency and music reading skills needed to become first chair trumpeter and president of his Monrovia High School band. When the baritone horn player graduated, he gave up the trumpet chair to play baritone horn.
Ironically, when his son Mitch switched from trumpet to baritone horn in the same school band - many years later, of course - he was given the same horn school officials had purchased for Clyde in 1950.
"That made me feel good," Towles admitted.
Music was a natural thing for the boy born in Glendale and partly raised on his paternal grandparents' Redondo Beach farm and in Monrovia. His mother, Marian Towles McMillan, sang on KIEV radio in Glendale until she was fired because her powerful soprano voice burst station light bulbs. Maternal grandmother Alice Kitts was a Hollywood Presbyterian Church organist.
Phyllis Towles, Clyde's wife of 53 years, sang in Monrovia High's Concert Choir, but they didn't know each other in school. They passed their musical genes on to sons Ron and Mitch and grandson Austin. Daughters Diana and Linda didn't demonstrate any interest in music. Ron and Austin, Mitch's 12-year-old son, play trumpet. Mitch plays trombone and baritone horn.
The rest of the Towles family - grandchildren Damond, Patrick, Amanda and Maxwell and 5-year-old and 9-month-old great-grandsons Harrison, 5, and Gunnar, 9 months - are fans cheering in the audience when Clyde and Ron, the band's lead trumpeter, play with the JazzCats.
Towles sheepishly confessed he made a major mistake when he turned down a music scholarship to USC and instead joined the Army National Guard.
"What can I say? I was 17, a kid, and obviously naive to pass up a chance like USC," Towles reflected. "I joined in May 1950 and my unit was activated in July. I went from Camp Cook to Japan for more training and then to Korea."
Phyllis conceded Clyde doesn't talk much about his experiences in the Korean War or military, including his post-war National Guard Reserve duties, but he doesn't mind conversations about military buddy Frank Walker, a saxophonist who played at Birdland in Chicago.
"We'd listen to Stan Kenton and others on Armed Forces Radio and talk about jazz," Towles recalled.
Returning from the war, he served as the daytime disc jockey playing records over the PA and showed movies at night for fellow soldiers.
He put music on the professional back burner to pursue several conventional jobs before becoming a Realtor in 1985. But music was never far from his world.
Phyllis told stories about him lining up their children, playing all kinds of music for them so they'd be well-rounded, telling them musical backstories and taking them to Hollywood Bowl concerts.
"I'd watch him and them and think, gee, I married the right guy," she said, smiling.
In February 2009, Clyde and Ron started the Gem City JazzCats, recruiting musicians from among Ron's Monrovia High School friends.
Ron, a trumpeter since age 7, played in Monrovia High, Tournament of Roses and Pasadena City College's bands and, while working, practiced frequently to maintain his chops.
The JazzCats "play to put sugar in their shoes and get them snapping fingers, dancing and smiling," Ron said. "We don't want people nodding or going to sleep. We swing."
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